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Bought in the act: How prevalent is compulsive buying?

Although shopping is a necessity in modern life, it is also a leisure activity and a form of entertainment with a rewarding value for some people. However, as I have noted in a number of my previous blogs, when taken to the extreme, shopping (or buying) can be a harmful and destructive activity for a minority of individuals. The consequences of compulsive buying behaviour (CBB) are often underestimated.

For instance, CBB can result in (i) large debts, (ii) inability to meet payments, (iii) criticism from partners, friends and acquaintances, (iv) legal and financial consequences, (v) criminal legal problems, and (vi) guilt. Furthermore, individuals with CBB often describe an increasing level of urge or anxiety that can only be alleviated and lead to a sense of completion when a purchase is made. Research has demonstrated that compulsive buying is a frequent disorder in a small minority of shopping mall visitors and is associated with important and robust indicators of psychopathology such as psychiatric distress, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse. Compared to non-compulsive buyers, compulsive buyers are over twice as likely to abuse substances, have any mood or anxiety disorder, and three times more likely to develop eating disorder than non-compulsive buyers. However, most of these findings are based on a small number of studies, all of which have sampling limitations.

Despite many studies highlighting the severe negative consequences that compulsive buying can lead to, the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) did not include compulsive buying disorder due to insufficient research in the field. Therefore, individuals with the condition are classified within the residual category of “Unspecified disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders”. Diagnostic criteria elsewhere include (i) maladaptive preoccupation with buying or shopping, or maladaptive buying or shopping impulses; (ii) generation of marked distress by the buying preoccupations, impulses or behaviours, which are time consuming, significantly interfere with social or occupational functioning or result in financial problems; and (iii) lack of restriction of the excessive buying or shopping behaviour to periods of hypomania or mania.

The age of onset for CBB appears to be in the late teens or early twenties, although some studies have reported a later mean age of 30 years. There is also a lack of consensus relating to gender differences. Most clinical studies report that women are much more likely to become compulsive buyers than men, but not all surveys have found significant differences in buying tendencies between men and women. Cultural mechanisms have been proposed to recognize the fact that CBB mainly occurs among individuals living in developed countries. Elements reported as being necessary for the development of CBB include the presence of a market-based economy, the availability of a wide variety of goods, disposable income, and significant leisure time. For these reasons, most working in the area agree that CBB is unlikely to occur in poorly developed countries, except among the wealthy elite.

Given this background, Aniko Maraz, Zsolt Demetrovics and I recently carried out a meta-analytic review that was published in the journal Addiction using all the empirical data concerning the prevalence of compulsive buying in non-clinical populations. We attempted to estimate a pooled prevalence of compulsive buying behaviour (CBB) in different populations across the world where studies have been carried out. We also examined the effect of age, gender, geographical location of the study.

Our initial literature search identified 638 publications. We then excluded case studies (n=23), reviews or theoretical works (n=192), studies involving data from clinical samples (n=244), qualitative studies (n=26), studies that used a compulsive buying scale to determine shopping severity but didn’t report a prevalence rate (n=73), studies written in a foreign language (n=15), dissertations and conference abstracts (n=7), studies written in a foreign language (n=15), small studies with a sample size of below 145 participants (n=16), and studies involving adolescents (n=2). This left 40 studies that met the inclusion criteria for the review. We then extracted sample mean age, proportion of females (in %), the study’s geographical location, and the screening instrument used to assess CBB, and the reported prevalence estimate of CBB.

The 40 relevant studies identified reported 49 different prevalence rate estimates for 32,333 participants. We then divided the data into four sub-samples: adult representative, adult non-representative, university student and shopping-specific. The mean prevalence of compulsive buying was 4.9% in adult representative samples [10,102 participants], 12.3% in adult non-representative samples [3,929 participants], 8.3% in university student samples [14,947 participants] and 16.2% in shopping-specific samples [4,686 participants]. Unsurprisingly, the highest prevalence rates were among shopping-specific samples.

We noted that the heterogeneity in prevalence rates of CBB may be because of the lack of consensus regarding the definition of compulsive buying. Studies used different measures to assess CBB, each having a different conceptual background. Most definitions include cognitive-affective indicators as well as maladaptive behavioural consequences when defining the disorder (e.g., debts). The screening instruments used across studies differed in indicators of financial consequences (e.g., credit card use, debts, loan etc.) and are subject to differences according to countries, sub-cultures and/or age groups.

Another problem we identified was that measures used to assess CBB didn’t explicitly distinguish current and lifetime assessment of CBB. Prevalence rates assessed with an instrument that assessed lifetime prevalence report 1.6 times higher rates on average than those that assessed current prevalence. We also observed that non-representative samples (e.g., adults, university students, shoppers) tended to recruit younger participants who were more likely to be female than representative studies. However, we also noted that the mean age of the sample and the proportion of males and females did not have a reliable effect on the prevalence estimates.

Being of a younger age was predictive of CBB according to individual study results and also according to the regression analysis that we carried out in the representative samples. However, it remains open as to whether compulsive buying tendency decreases with age or this difference reflects generational differences. If the latter was the case, then the prevalence of compulsive buying behaviour is expected to increase in the future. We also found some evidence for increasing rates of CBB in Germany and in Spain, but longitudinal studies are needed to clarify this.

In relation to data collection, estimates from the United States (18 out of 49) were over-represented compared to countries other than the USA, although there was no difference in the reported estimates between the U.S. and non-U.S. countries. However, it is difficult to draw reliable conclusions regarding the cultural variance of CBB given that adult representative estimates are only available from the USA, Spain, Germany and Hungary.

The fact that compulsive buying behaviour is a relatively common disorder with severe consequences for a minority of individuals should not be overlooked. It appears that approximately one in 20 individuals suffer from CBB at some point in their lives and that being young and female are associated with a higher risk of CBB. High heterogeneity is likely to be the result of methodological variability within studies, such as assessment screens with different time frames and conceptual background. We concluded that future studies should therefore think carefully about how to conceptualise the disorder and to clearly separate out current versus lifetime prevalence in the samples used.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Please note : This article was co-written with Aniko Maraz and Zsolt Demetrovics (Institute of Psychology, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary)

Further reading

Alemis, M. C., & Yap, K. (2013). The role of negative urgency impulsivity and financial management practices in compulsive buying. Australian Journal of Psychology, 65(4), 224-231.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S., Bilder, R.M., Torsheim, T. Aboujaoude, E.N. (2015). The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale: Reliability and validity of a brief screening test. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:1374. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01374.

Basu, B., Basu, S., & Basu, J. (2011). Compulsive buying: an overlooked entity. Journal of the Indian Medical Association, 109(8), 582-585.

Black, D.W., Shaw, M., McCormick, B., Bayless, J.D., Allena, J. (2012). Neuropsychological performance, impulsivity, ADHD symptoms, and novelty seeking in compulsive buying disorder. Psychiatry Research, 200, 581–587.

Black, D. W. (2007). A review of compulsive buying disorder. World Psychiatry, 6, 14-18.

Davenport, K., Houston, J.E., Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 474–489.

Dittmar, H., Long, K. & Bond, R. (2007). When a better self is only a button click away: Associations between materialistic values, emotional and identity-related buying motives, and compulsive buying tendency online. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 334-361.

Duroy, D., Gorse, P., & Lejoyeux, M. (2014). Characteristics of online compulsive buying in Parisian students. Addictive Behaviors, 39, 1827-1830.

Frost, R.A., Tolin, D.F., Steketee, G., Fitch, K.E., Selbo-Bruns, A. (2009). Excessive acquisition in hoarding, Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 23, 632-639.

Guo, Z., Cai, Y. (2011). Exploring the antecedents of compulsive buying tendency among adolescents in China and Thailand: A consumer socialization perspective. African Journal of Business Management, 5(24), 10198-10209.

Harvanko, A., Lust, K., Odlaug, B. L., Schreiber, L., Derbyshire, K., Christenson, G., & Grant, J. E. (2013). Prevalence and characteristics of compulsive buying in college students. Psychiatry Research, 210(3), 1079-1085.

Jung, J., & Yi, S. (2013). Assessment of heterogeneity of compulsive buyers based on affective antecedents of buying lapses. Addiction Research and Theory, 22, 37-48.

Koran, L.M., Faber, R.J., Aboujaoude, M.A., Large, M.D., Serpe, R.T. (2006). Estimated prevalence of compulsive buying behavior in the United States. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163, 1806-1812.

Kukar-Kinney, M., Ridgway, N. M., & Monroe, K. B. (2012). The role of price in the behavior and purchase decisions of compulsive buyers. Journal of Retailing, 88(1), 63-71.

Lejoyeux, M., Weinstein, A. (2010). Compulsive buying. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36 (5), 248–253.

Maraz, A., Griffiths, M. D., Demetrovics, Z. (2015). The prevalence of compulsive buying in nonclinical populations: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Addiction, doi:10.1111/add.13223.

Mikołajczak-Degrauwe, K., & Brengman, M. (2014). The influence of advertising on compulsive buying – The role of persuasion knowledge. Journal of Behavioral Addictions3(1), 65–73.

Mueller, A., Mitchell, J. E., Peterson, L. A., Faber, R. J., Steffen, K. J., Crosby, R. D., & Claes, L. (2011). Depression, materialism, and excessive Internet use in relation to compulsive buying. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 52(4), 420-424.

Tommasi, M., & Busonera, A. (2012). Validation of three compulsive buying scales on an Italian sample 1. Psychological Reports, 111(3), 831-844.

Weinstein, A., Maraz, A., Griffiths, M.D., Lejoyeaux, M. & Demetrovics, Z. (in press). Shopping addiction and compulsive buying: Features and characteristics of addiction. In V. Preedy (Ed.), The Neuropathology Of Drug Addictions And Substance Misuse. London: Academic Press.

Good buy to love: Introducing the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale

(Please note that the following article was co-written using material provided by my research colleague Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen and our fellow researchers).

In two of my previous blogs I took a brief look at the area of shopping addiction (that you can read here and here). Since writing those blogs I’ve co-written a few papers on compulsive buying and shopping addiction (see ‘Further reading’ below), the latest of which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (FiP) and led by my friend and research colleague Dr. Cecilie Schou Andreassen at the University of Bergen in Norway. In the FiP paper we reported on the development of a newly created instrument to assess this disorder called the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale (BSAS).

Whether compulsive and excessive shopping represents an impulse-control, obsessive-compulsive or addictive disorder has been debated for several years This fact is reflected in the many names that have been given to this disorder including ‘oniomania’, ‘shopaholism’, ‘compulsive shopping’, ‘compulsive consumption’, ‘impulsive buying’, “compulsive buying’ and ‘compulsive spending’. In a review by Dr. Andreasson in the Journal of Norwegian Psychological Association, she argued that shopping disorder is best understood from an addiction perspective, and defined it as “being overly concerned about shopping, driven by an uncontrollable shopping motivation, and to investing so much time and effort into shopping that it impairs other important life areas”. Several authors (including myself) share this view as a growing body of research shows that those with problematic shopping behaviour report specific addiction symptoms such as craving, withdrawal, loss of control, and tolerance.

Research also suggests that the typical shopping addict is young, female, and of lower educational background. Some personality factors have also been shown to be associated with shopping addiction including extroversion and neuroticism. It has been suggested that neurotic individuals (typically being anxious, depressive, and self-conscious) may use shopping as means of reducing their negative emotional feelings. Other personality factors may actually protect individuals from developing shopping addictions (e.g., conscientiousness). Empirical research (including some research I carried out with Kate Davenport and James Houston published in a 2012 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction) has consistently reported significantly lower levels of self-esteem among shopping addicts. Such findings suggest that irrational beliefs such as “buying a product will make life better” and “shopping this item will enhance my self-image” may trigger excessive shopping behaviour in people with low self-esteem. However, this may be related to depression, which has been shown to be highly comorbid with problematic shopping.

Other factors, such as anxiety have also often been associated with shopping, and it has also been suggested that self-critical people shop in order to escape, or cope with, negative feelings. In addition, shopping addiction has also been explained (by such people as Dr. Marc Potenza and Dr. Eric Hollander) as a way of regulating neurochemical (e.g., serotonergic, dopaminergic, opioid) abnormalities and has been successfully treated with pharmacological agents, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and opioid antagonists.

One of the key problems that we outlined in our new FiP paper is that in prior research there is a lack of a common understanding about how problematic shopping should be defined, conceptualized, and measured. Consequently, there are huge disparities and unreliable prevalence estimates of shopping addiction ranging from 1% to 20% and beyond (depending upon the criteria used to assess the disorder). Although several scales for assessing shopping addiction have been developed (mainly in the late 1980s and early 1990s) many of them have poor theoretical anchoring and/or are primarily rooted within the impulse-control paradigm. We also argued that several items of existing scales are outdated with regards to modern consumer patterns (such as people using cheques or no reference to online shopping). Newer scales that have been developed don’t view problematic shopping behaviour as an addiction in terms of core addiction criteria (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict, relapse and resulting problems).

This is why we decided to develop a new shopping addiction scale (i.e., the BSAS) containing a small number of items that reflect the core elements of addiction (and if you want to take the test yourself, it’s at the end of this article). We examined the psychometric properties of the new scale among a large sample of Norwegian individuals (n=23,537), and the testing phase began with 28 items (four statements for each of the seven components of addiction outlined above). The BSAS was constructed simply by taking the highest scoring item from each of seven 4-item clusters. We found that scores on the BSAS were significantly higher among females, as well as being inversely related to age (and therefore in line with previous research). We also found that scores on the BSAS were positively associated with extroversion and neuroticism.

The association of shopping addiction with extroversion may reflect that, in general, extroverts need more stimulation than non-extroverted individuals, a notion that is in line with studies showing that extroversion is associated with addictions more generally. It may also reflect the notion that extroverts purchase specific types of products excessively as a means to express their individuality, enhance personal attractiveness, or as a way to belong to a certain privileged group a (e.g., the buying of high end luxury goods). The association of shopping addiction with neuroticism may be because neuroticism is a general vulnerability factor for the development of psychopathology and that people scoring high on neuroticism engage excessively in different behaviours in order to escape from dysphoric feelings.

We also found that shopping addiction was inversely related to self-esteem. This is also in line with the findings of previous studies and implies that some individuals shop excessively in order to obtain higher self-esteem (e.g., associated “rub-off” effects from high status items such as popularity, compliments, in-group ‘likes’, omnipotent feelings while buying items, attention during the shopping process from helping retail personnel), to escape from feelings of low self-esteem, or that shopping addiction lowers self-esteem. Obviously our new scale needs to be further evaluated in future studies (as it has only been investigated in this one study) and it also requires validation in other cultures.

Overall, we concluded that the BSAS has good psychometrics – basically the scale is quick to administer, reliable and valid. With the advent of new technology and modern consumer patterns we may be witnessing an increase in problematic shopping behaviour. It is likely that new Internet-related technologies can greatly facilitate the emergence of problematic shopping behaviour because of factors such as accessibility, affordability, anonymity, convenience, and disinhibition. Therefore, we encourage other researchers to consider using the BSAS in epidemiological studies and treatment settings.

Want to take the test?  

Answer each of the following questions with one of the following five responses: ‘completely disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘neither disagree nor agree’, ‘agree’, and ‘completely agree’.

  • You think about shopping/buying things all the time
  • You shop/buy things in order to change your mood
  • You shop/buy so much that it negatively affects your daily obligations (e.g., school and work)
  • You feel you have to shop/buy more and more to obtain the same satisfaction as before.
  • You have decided to shop/buy less, but have not been able to do so
  • You feel bad if you for some reason are prevented from shopping/buying things
  • You shop/buy so much that it has impaired your well-being

If you answer “agree” or “completely agree” on at least four of the seven items, you may be a shopping addict.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Aboujaoude, E. (2014). Compulsive buying disorder: A review and update. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4021-4025.

Andreassen, C. S. (2014). Shopping addiction: An overview. Journal of Norwegian Psychological Association, 51, 194–209.

Andreassen, C.S., Griffiths, M.D., Pallesen, S., Bilder, R.M., Torsheim, T. Aboujaoude, E.N. (2015). The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale: Reliability and validity of a brief screening test. Frontiers in Psychology, 6:1374. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01374.

Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 474-489.

Maraz, A., Eisinger, A., Hende, Urbán, R., Paksi, B., Kun, B., Kökönyei, G., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Measuring compulsive buying behaviour: Psychometric validity of three different scales and prevalence in the general population and in shopping centres. Psychiatry Research, 225, 326–334.

McQueen, P., Moulding, R., & Kyrios, M. (2014). Experimental evidence for the influence of cognitions on compulsive buying. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45, 496–501.

Workman, L., & Paper, D. (2010). Compulsive buying: A theoretical framework. Journal of Business Inquiry, 9, 89–126.

Term warfare: Internet Gaming Disorder and Internet Addiction Disorder are not the same

Over the last 15 years, research into various online addictions has greatly increased. Alongside this, there have been scholarly debates about whether internet addiction really exists. Some may argue that because internet use does not involve the ingestion of a psychoactive substance, then it should not be considered a genuine addictive behaviour. However, the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) re-classified ‘Gambling Disorder’ as a behavioural addiction rather than as a disorder of impulse control. The implications of this reclassification are potentially far-reaching. The most significant implication is that if an activity that does not involve the consumption of drugs (i.e., gambling) can be a genuine addiction accepted by the psychiatric and medical community, there is no theoretical reason why other problematic and habitual behaviours (e.g., shopping, work, exercise, sex, video gaming, etc.) cannot be classed as a bone fide addiction.

There have also been debates among scholars that consider excessive problematic internet use to be a genuine addiction as to whether the those in the field should study generalized internet addiction (the totality of all online activities) and/or specific addictions on the internet such as internet gambling, internet gaming and internet sex. Since the late 1990s, I have constantly argued that there is a fundamental difference between addictions on the internet, and addictions to the internet. I argued that the overwhelming majority of individuals that were allegedly addicted to the internet were not internet addicts but were individuals that used the medium of the internet as a vehicle for other addictions. More specifically, I argued that internet gambling addicts and internet gaming addicts were not internet addicts but were gambling and gaming addicts using the convenience and ubiquity of the internet to gamble or play video games.

Prior to the publication of the latest DSM-5, there had also been debates as to whether ‘internet addiction’ should be introduced into the text as a separate disorder. Following these debates, the Substance Use Disorder Work Group (SUDWG) recommended that the DSM-5 include a sub-type of problematic internet use (i.e., internet gaming disorder [IGD]) in Section 3 (‘Emerging Measures and Models’) as an area that needed future research before being included in future editions of the DSM. However, far from clarifying the debates surrounding generalized versus specific internet use disorders, the section of the DSM-5 discussing IGD noted that:

“There are no well-researched subtypes for Internet gaming disorder to date. Internet gaming disorder most often involves specific Internet games, but it could involve non-Internet computerized games as well, although these have been less researched. It is likely that preferred games will vary over time as new games are developed and popularized, and it is unclear if behaviors and consequence associated with Internet gaming disorder vary by game type…Internet gaming disorder has significant public health importance, and additional research may eventually lead to evidence that Internet gaming disorder (also commonly referred to as Internet use disorder, Internet addiction, or gaming addiction) has merit as an independent disorder” (p.796).

In light of what has been already highlighted in previous research, two immediate problematic issues arise from these assertions. Firstly, IGD is clearly seen as synonymous with internet addiction as the text claims that internet addiction and internet use disorder are simply other names for IGD. Secondly – and somewhat confusingly – it is asserted that IGD (which is by definition internet-based) can also include offline gaming disorders.

With regards to the first assertion, internet addiction and online gaming addiction are not the same. A number of recent studies (including ones I’ve co-authored) clearly shows that to be the case. The second assertion that IGD can include offline video gaming is both baffling and confusing. Some researchers consider video games as the starting point for examining the characteristics of gaming disorder, while others consider the internet as the main platform that unites different addictive internet activities, including online games. For instance, I have argued that although all addictions have particular and idiosyncratic characteristics, they share more commonalities than differences (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict, and relapse), and likely reflects a common etiology of addictive behaviour. For me, IGD is clearly a sub-type of video game addiction. For people like Dr. Kimberley Young, ‘cyber-relationship addictions’, ‘cyber-sexual addictions’, ‘net compulsions’ (gambling, day trading) and ‘information overload’ are all internet addictions. However, many would argue that these – if they are addictions – are addictions on the internet, not to it. The internet is a medium and it is a situational characteristic. The fact that the medium might enhance addictiveness or problematic behaviour does not necessarily make it a sub-type of internet addiction.

However, recent studies have made an effort to integrate both approaches. For instance, some researchers claim that neither the first nor the second approach adequately captures the unique features of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), and argue an integrated approach is a necessity. A common observation is that “Internet users are no more addicted to the Internet than alcoholics are addicted to bottles”. The internet is just a channel through which individuals may access whatever content they want (e.g., gambling, shopping, chatting, sex). On the other hand, online games differ from traditional standalone games, such as offline video games, in important aspects such as the social dimension or the role-playing dimension that allow interaction with other real players. Consequently, it could be argued that IGD can either be viewed as a specific type of video game addiction, or as a variant of internet addiction, or as an independent diagnosis. However, the idea that IGD can include offline gaming disorders does little for clarity or conceptualization.

Finally, it is also worth mentioning that there are some problematic online behaviours that could be called internet addictions as they can only take place online. The most obvious activity that fulfills this criterion is social networking as it is a ‘pure’ online activity and does not and cannot take place offline. Other activities such as gambling, gaming, and shopping can still be engaged in offline (as gamblers can go to a gambling venue, gamers can play a standalone console game, shoppers can go to a retail outlet). However, those engaged in social networking would not (if unable to access the internet) walk into a big room of people and start chatting to them all. However, even if social networking addiction is a genuine internet addiction, social networking itself is still a specific online application and could still be considered an addiction on the internet, rather than to it.

Based on recent empirical evidence, IGD (or any of the alternate names used to describe problematic gaming) is not the same as Internet Addiction Disorder. The gaming studies field needs conceptual clarity but as demonstrated, the DSM-5 itself is both misleading and misguided when it comes to the issue of IGD.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Demetrovics, Z., Urbán, R., Nagygyörgy, K., Farkas, J., Griffiths, M. D., Pápay, O., . . . Oláh, A. (2012). The development of the Problematic Online Gaming Questionnaire (POGQ). PLoS ONE, 7(5), e36417.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Internet addiction – Time to be taken seriously? Addiction Research, 8, 413-418.

Griffiths, M. D. (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10(4), 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D., King, D.L. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder needs a unified approach to assessment. Neuropsychiatry, under review.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318.

Griffiths, M.D. & Pontes, H.M. (2014). Internet addiction disorder and internet gaming disorder are not the same. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5: e124. doi:10.4172/2155-6105.1000e124.

Kim, M. G., & Kim, J. (2010). Cross-validation of reliability, convergent and discriminant validity for the problematic online game use scale. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(3), 389-398.

King, D. L., Delfabbro, P. H., Griffiths, M. D., & Gradisar, M. (2011). Assessing clinical trials of Internet addiction treatment: A systematic review and CONSORT evaluation. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1110-1116.

King, D. L., Delfabbro, P. H., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). Cognitive-behavioral approaches to outpatient treatment of Internet addiction in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 68, 1185-1195.

King, D.L., Haagsma, M.C., Delfabbro, P.H., Gradisar, M.S., Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Toward a consensus definition of pathological video-gaming: A systematic review of psychometric assessment tools. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 331-342.

Koronczai, B., Urban, R., Kokonyei, G., Paksi, B., Papp, K., Kun, B., . . . Demetrovics, Z. (2011). Confirmation of the three-factor model of problematic internet use on off-line adolescent and adult samples. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 14, 657–664.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet and gaming addiction: A systematic literature review of neuroimaging studies. Brain Sciences, 2, 347-374.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 20, 4026-4052.

Pápay, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Problematic online gaming. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment. New York: Elsevier.

Petry, N.M., & O’Brien, C.P. (2013). Internet gaming disorder and the DSM-5. Addiction, 108, 1186–1187.

Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The assessment of internet gaming disorder in clinical research. Clinical Research and Regulatory Affairs, 31(2-4), 35-48.

Pontes, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). Measuring DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder: Development and validation of a short psychometric scale. Computers in Human Behavior, 45, 137-143.

Pontes, H., Király, O. Demetrovics, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). The conceptualisation and measurement of DSM-5 Internet Gaming Disorder: The development of the IGD-20 Test. PLoS ONE, 9(10): e110137. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110137.

Pontes, H., Kuss, D. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). The clinical psychology of Internet addiction: A review of its conceptualization, prevalence, neuronal processes, and implications for treatment. Neuroscience and Neuroeconomics, 4, 11-23.

Porter, G., Starcevic, V., Berle, D., & Fenech, P. (2010). Recognizing problem video game use. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44, 120-128.

Young, K. S. (1998). Internet addiction: The emergence of a new clinical disorder. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 1, 237-244.

Deal love: Bargain hunting as an addiction

“Bargain hunting may save money, but for some people, looking for the next ‘great deal’ becomes an addiction. The call of the clearance rack wins out over practical matters – like whether you need or want what you found, or even have a place to put it” (Tesh Media, ‘Are You Addicted To Bargain Hunting?’)

A couple of weeks ago, I did some background research for a newspaper interview on the psychology of bargain hunting (only for the journalist then to interview somebody else about it). Instead of wasting all the material collected, I decided to use it for this article. Most of the material in this article borders on ‘pop psychology’ but I found it interesting nonetheless. For instance, in a recent article on the BBC News website, the (anonymous) author provided some basic rules on how to be a more savvy shopper and bargain hunter (which I am quoting verbatim):

  • “Try to avoid stores that are too busy with loud music. This can confuse and distract you from judging what is a genuine offer.
  • Ask the sales rep to repeat the sales details in a clear and slow manner and if possible ask him/her to write them down.
  • Before you make a decision take a break, count from one to ten and think again about the benefits and perils of the offer.
  • Can you shop alone? Peer pressure has been proven to be a key indicator for individuals buying products that they do not need.
  • Never shop when you are feeling emotionally upset. Purchasing to overcome any mood or behavioural troubles is not beneficial in the long term.
  • Go shopping after a meal or when in a good and clear mood. There is evidence that shopping when you feel peckish can make you spend more than intended”.

As soon as we enter any shop (online or offline) we are being bombarded with psychological tactics in an attempt to get us to buy more products (such as selling products that have a price ending in 99p). The BBC article interviewed consumer psychologist Dr. Dimitri Tsivrikos who said:

“These prices are obviously used to convince you that you are spending less than you actually are. A price reduction makes it even more tempting. The bargain price is appealing to you because it challenges the status quo. The retailer appears not to be in complete control of the final price of the product, and this makes you feel that you are now in control. And because of that you feel you can negotiate the final price that you have to pay – whether that is the sale price or even a buy one get one free deal…Brain studies have shown that when we are excited by a bargain, this interferes with your ability to clearly judge whether it is actually a good offer or not”.

When I started researching online, I came across a number of articles claiming that for a small minority, bargain hunting was addictive (as the opening quote demonstrates). In another article on the Tesh Media website, reference was made to April Lane Benson’s edited book I Shop, Therefore I Am. According to that article (which merges bargain hunting addiction with shopping addiction more generally):

“[Benson] says that when it comes to bargain-hunting addictions, what people buy isn’t as important as how big the price reduction is. In fact, the bigger the price cut, the more tempting a purchase is. After all, if something’s 80% off the original price – you’re saving 80 percent! What you may not consider is that by not buying, you’ll save 100%. Bargain addicts also make illogical purchases, like grabbing up sale-price auto parts for cars they don’t own, or bargain kid’s clothes for children they don’t have…So, why is a bargain-hunting addiction so common? Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, says it’s a way for people to ease insecurities, and feel more competent and in control. In fact, shopping addicts often don’t realize they have a problem, even when the bags and bills start stacking up. It usually takes a big event to bring it to their attention, like divorce, a new baby, unemployment, or retirement. Or they simply max out their credit cards, and have no more spending power”

In the same article published on the Tech Media website, it claimed the five signs of being ‘addicted’ to bargain hunter were:

  • “You hit sales and clearance racks when you feel angry or blue. Or you feel guilty after shopping and hide your purchases.
  • You spend more money than you can afford.
  • You see sales as opportunities you can’t pass up.
  • Another clue you’re a bargain addict: You spend so much time tracking down deals that it intrudes on your time with family and friends.
  • You often forget what you bought, and find things in your closets you’ve never used”.

Obviously some of these ‘warning signs’ tap into what I believe are the core components of addiction (such as the fourth bullet point that taps into ‘conflict’), however, most of the criteria have nothing to do with ‘addiction’ whatsoever. Using bargain-hunting as a way of making oneself feel better mirrors what is found in other addictions, but characteristics such as not being able to pass up a bargain, and forgetting what has been bought are not core signs of addiction but are idiosyncratic consequences that specifically relate to bargain hunting. Another online article also noted:

“According to new survey findings from Consumer Reports, 23% of women say they sometimes buy things they don’t need just because they’re on sale. For most of us, getting a discount is enough of a reward: 80% say they would hunt for a bargain even if money weren’t an issue for them. In general, the survey found bargain shopping has increased significantly, from 76% in 2011 to 83% today. That shift may be due in part to the growing use of smartphone coupons, which has increased from 11% in 2011 to 24% today. Human psychology may help explain the irresistible allure of a discount. Research suggests that people tend to enjoy bargains, regardless of whether any financial gain is involved. You might even be able to blame your bargain hunting on Mom and Dad, because some experts say genetic differences make certain people predisposed to finding pleasure in raiding the sale rack”.

This paragraph provided a hyperlink to some genuine academic research carried out by Dr. Peter Darke and his colleagues (published in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology). They carried out a couple of experiments examining both the financial and non-financial motivations underlying bargain hunting. They reported that:

“Subjects read scenarios that described the purchase of a television set. Scenarios differed in terms of whether a bargain was received, whether there was personal financial gain, and whether the sale was acquired through skill or luck. The results suggest that subjects generally enjoyed bargains regardless of any financial gain, thereby implying that nonfinancial motives might also be involved. Surprisingly, bargains acquired skillfully were not enjoyed more than lucky bargains. Thus, achievement motives could not explain why subjects enjoyed bargains when there was no associated financial gain. Instead, it seemed that acquiring a bargain was primarily considered a matter of luck”.

I was also interested in the claims that bargain hunting might be underpinned by genetic influences. These claims were made by Mark Ellwood in his 2013 book Bargain fever: How to shop in a discounted world. Ellwood summarized his book in an article for Time magazine and wrote:

“As it turns out, a passion for finding bargains is genetically preprogrammed in all humans, although it’s activated much more in some than others. Spotting special offers triggers a release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that I like to think of as ‘buyagra’. Dopamine is such a powerful chemical that our brains have developed a built-in system to clean it up as quickly as possible. One in four Caucasians has an otherwise harmless flaw in what’s known as the COMT gene. While the rest of us can flush our brains free of dopamine with the efficiency of a Dyson, those with an iffy COMT gene can brandish only a hand broom. It takes more time and effort to flush their brains clean of buyagra – and so they are physiologically more prone to splurge, especially on bargains”.

Ellwood claimed that as soon as “bargain addicts sees one ‘Sale’ sign – cue a jolt of dopamine – they’re hooked”. More specifically, he goes on to argue that:

“Of course, a propensity for bargain hunting isn’t purely genetic…Many hardcore coupon cutters I’ve interviewed cite hardscrabble childhoods or food-bank visits as the foundation of their frugality. Certainly, in the past decade, deal hunting has gone from a sign of indigence to one of intelligence; thanks to the roiling economy and an uncertain future, more people have migrated to the markdown section than ever before…Internet-equipped smartphones turned price comparison into a one-step process in your palm — the practice known as showrooming that’s so detested by retailers. But in our search for bargains, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we are really trying to economize or whether we’re being driven by an even stronger impulse: the chemical drive to get a good price”.

Given that I believe shopping can be an addiction in a minority of individuals, it doesn’t take too much of a leap to suggest bargain hunting could be an addiction (or even a sub-type of shopping addiction). However, as far as I am aware, there has never been any empirical research examining ‘bargain hunting addiction’ more specifically. Based on the few online articles that I read, it certainly appears that we are living in a time and an age where such research would be worth carrying out.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

BBC News (2015). The psychology of shopping for bargains. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/consumer/23818336

Benson, A.L. (2000). I Shop Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. Jason Aronson Inc. Publishers.

Consumer Reports (2014). America’s bargain-hunting habits. What shoppers will and won’t do to save a buck. April 30. Located at: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/04/america-s-bargain-hunting-habits/index.htm

Darke, P. R., & Freedman, J. L. (1995). Nonfinancial Motives and Bargain Hunting1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25(18), 1597-1610.

Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 474-489.

Ellwood, M. (2013). The genetics of bargain hunting. Time, October 21. Located at: http://ideas.time.com/2013/10/21/the-genetics-of-bargain-hunting/

Ellwood, M. (2013). Bargain fever: How to shop in a discounted world. London: Portfolio.

Lebowitz, S. (2014). Extreme bargain hunters: How far would you go for a deal. LearnVest, May 2. Located at: http://www.learnvest.com/2014/05/extreme-bargain-hunters-how-far-would-you-go-for-a-deal-123/

Maraz, A., Eisinger, A., Hende, Urbán, R., Paksi, B., Kun, B., Kökönyei, G., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Measuring compulsive buying behaviour: Psychometric validity of three different scales and prevalence in the general population and in shopping centres. Psychiatry Research, 225, 326–334.

Tesh Media Group (2015). Are you addicted to bargain hunting? Located at: http://www.tesh.com/story/money-and-finance-category/are-you-addicted-to-bargain-hunting/cc/12/id/9141

Williams, A. (2013). Bargain fever: The new secrets of shopping in a discounted world. The Week, November 5. Located at: http://theweek.com/articles/457383/bargain-fever-new-secrets-shopping-discounted-world

Net losses: Internet abuse and addiction in the workplace

The following article is a much extended version of an article that was originally published by The Conversation under the title ‘Tweets and cybersex: Workplace web use is a minefield’

A number of market research reports have indicated that many office employees in the UK spend at least one hour of their day at work on various non-work activities (e.g., booking holidays, shopping online, posting messages on social networking sites, playing online games, etc.) and costs businesses millions of pounds a year. These findings highlight that internet abuse is a serious cause for concern – particularly to employers. Furthermore, the long-term effects of internet abuse may have more far-reaching effects for the company that internet abusers work for than the individuals themselves. Abuse also suggests that there may not necessarily be any negative effects for the user other than a decrease in work productivity.

Back in the early 2000s (and using some of Kimberley Young’s work on types of internet addiction) I developed a typology of internet abusers. This included cybersexual Internet abuse, online friendship/relationship abuse, internet activity abuse, online information abuse, criminal internet abuse, and miscellaneous Internet abuse:

  • Cybersexual Internet abuse: This involves the abuse of adult websites for cybersex and cyberporn during work hours. Such behaviours include the reading of online pornographic magazines, the watching of pornographic videos and/or webcams, or the participating in online sexual discussion groups, forums or instant chat facilities
  • Online friendship/relationship abuse: This involves the conducting of an online friendship and/or relationship during work hours. Such a category could also include the use of e-mailing friends, posting messages to friends on social networking sites (e.g., on Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and/or engaging in discussion groups, as well as maintenance of online emotional relationships. Such people may also abuse the Internet by using it to explore gender and identity roles by swapping gender or creating other personas and forming online relationships or engaging in cybersex.
  • Internet activity abuse: This involves the use of the internet during work hours in which other non-work related activities are done (e.g., online gambling, online shopping, online travel booking, online video gaming in massively multiplier games, online day-trading, online casual gaming via social network sites, etc.). This appears to be one of the most common forms of Internet abuse in the workplace.
  • Online information abuse: This involves the abuse of internet search engines and databases (e.g., Googling online for hours, constantly checking Twitter account, etc.). Typically, this involves individuals who search for work-related information on databases etc. but who end up wasting hours of time with little relevant information gathered. This may be deliberate work-avoidance but may also be accidental and/or non-intentional. It may also involve people who seek out general educational information, information for self-help/diagnosis (including online therapy) and/or scientific research for non-work purposes.
  • Criminal Internet abuse: This involves the seeking out individuals who then become victims of sexually-related Internet crime (e.g., online sexual harassment, online trolling, cyberstalking, paedophilic “grooming” of children). The fact that these types of abuse involve criminal acts may have severe implications for employers.
  • Miscellaneous Internet abuse: This involves any activity not found in the above categories such as the digital manipulation of images on the Internet for entertainment and/or masturbatory purposes (e.g., creating celebrity fake photographs where heads of famous people are superimposed onto someone else’s naked body).

There are many factors that make Internet abuse in the workplace seductive. It is clear from research in the area of computer-mediated communication that virtual environments have the potential to provide short-term comfort, excitement, and/or distraction. These provide compelling reasons as to why employees may engage in non-work related internet use. There are also other reasons (opportunity, access, affordability, anonymity, convenience, escape, disinhibition, social acceptance, and longer working hours):

  • Opportunity and access: Obvious pre-cursors to potential Internet abuse includes both opportunity and access to the Internet. Clearly, the internet is now commonplace and widespread, and is almost integral to almost all office workplace environments. Given that prevalence of undesirable behaviours is strongly correlated with increased access to the activity, it is not surprising that the development of internet abuse appears to be increasing across the population. Research into other socially acceptable but potentially problematic behaviours (drinking alcohol, gambling etc.) has demonstrated that increased accessibility leads to increased uptake (i.e., regular use) and that this eventually leads to an increase in problems – although the increase may not be proportional.
  • Affordability: Given the wide accessibility of the internet, it is now becoming cheaper and cheaper to use the online services on offer. Furthermore, for almost all employees, Internet access is totally free of charge and the only costs will be time and the financial costs of some particular activities (e.g., online sexual services, online gambling etc.).
  • Anonymity: The anonymity of the Internet allows users to privately engage in their behaviours of choice in the belief that the fear of being caught by their employer is minimal. This anonymity may also provide the user with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of their online experiences. The anonymity of the Internet often facilitates more honest and open communication with other users and can be an important factor in the development of online relationships that may begin in the workplace. Anonymity may also increase feelings of comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgment in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions.
  • Convenience: Interactive online applications such as e-mail, social media, chat rooms, online forums, or role-playing games provide convenient mediums to meet others without having to leave one’s work desk. Online abuse will usually occur in the familiar and comfortable environment of home or workplace thus reducing the feeling of risk and allowing even more adventurous behaviours.
  • Escape: For some, the primary reinforcement of particular kinds of internet abuse (e.g., to engage in an online affair and/or cybersex) is the sexual gratification they experience online. In the case of behaviours like cybersex and online gambling, the experiences online may be reinforced through a subjectively and/or objectively experienced ‘high’. The pursuit of mood-modifying experiences is characteristic of addictions. The mood-modifying experience has the potential to provide an emotional or mental escape and further serves to reinforce the behaviour. Abusive and/or excessive involvement in this escapist activity may lead to problems (e.g., online addictions). Online behaviour can provide a potent escape from the stresses and strains of real life. These activities fall on the continuum from life enhancing to pathological and addictive.
  • Disinhibition: Disinhibition is clearly one of the internet’s key appeals as there is little doubt that the Internet makes people less inhibited. Online users appear to open up more quickly online and reveal themselves emotionally much faster than in the offline world. What might take months or years in an offline relationship may only takes days or weeks online. As a number of researchers have pointed out, the perception of trust, intimacy and acceptance has the potential to encourage online users to use these relationships as a primary source of companionship and comfort.
  • Social acceptability:The social acceptability of online interaction is another factor to consider in this context. What is really interesting is how the perception of online activity has changed over the last 15 years (e.g., the ‘nerdish’ image of the Internet is almost obsolete). It may also be a sign of increased acceptance as young children and adolescents are exposed to technology earlier and so become used to socializing using computers as tools. For instance, laying the foundations for an online relationship in this way has become far more socially acceptable and will continue to be so. Most of these people are not societal misfits as is often claimed – they are simply using the technology as another tool in their social armory.
  • Longer working hours: All over the world, people are working longer hours and it is perhaps unsurprising that many of life’s activities can be performed from the workplace Internet. Take, for example, the case of a single individual looking for a relationship. For these people, the Internet at work may be ideal. Dating via the desktop may be a sensible option for workaholic professionals. It is effectively a whole new electronic “singles bar” which because of its text-based nature breaks down physical prejudices. For others, internet interaction takes away the social isolation that we can all sometimes feel. There are no boundaries of geography, class or nationality. It opens up a whole new sphere of relationship-forming.

Being able to spot someone who is an Internet abuser can be very difficult. However, there are some practical steps that employers can be taken to help minimize the potential problem.

  • Take the issue of internet abuse seriously. Internet abuse and addiction in all their varieties are only just being considered as potentially serious occupational issues. Managers, in conjunction with Personnel Departments need to ensure they are aware of the issues involved and the potential risks it can bring to both their employees and the whole organization. They also need to be aware that for employees who deal with finances, some forms of Internet abuse (e.g., Internet gambling), the consequences for the company can be very great.
  • Raise awareness of internet abuse issues at work. This can be done through e-mail circulation, leaflets, and posters on general notice boards. Some countries will have national and/or local agencies (e.g., technology councils, health and safety organizations etc.) that can supply useful educational literature (including posters). Telephone numbers for these organizations can usually be found in most telephone directories.
  • Ask employees to be vigilant. Internet abuse at work can have serious repercussions not only for the individual but also for those employees who befriend Internet abusers, and the organization itself. Fellow staff members need to know the basic signs and symptoms of Internet abuse. Employee behaviours such as continual use the Internet for non-work purposes might be indicative of an Internet abuse problem.
  • Monitor internet use of staff that may be having problems. Those staff members with an internet-related problem are likely to spend great amounts of time engaged in non-work activities on the Internet. Should an employer suspect such a person, they should get the company’s I.T. specialists to look at their Internet surfing history as the computer’s hard disc will have information about everything they have ever accessed.
  • Check internet “bookmarks” of staff. In some jurisdictions across the world, employers can legally access the e-mails and Internet content of their employees. One of the simplest checks is to simply look at an employee’s list of “bookmarked” websites. If they are spending a lot of employment time engaged in non-work activities, many bookmarks will be completely non-work related (e.g., online dating agencies, gambling sites).
  • Develop an “Internet Abuse At Work” policy. Many organizations have policies for behaviours such as smoking or drinking alcohol. Employers should develop their own internet abuse policies via liaison between Personnel Services and local technology councils and/or health and safety executives.
  • Give support to identified problem users. Most large organizations have counselling services and other forms of support for employees who find themselves in difficulties. In some (but not all) situations, problems associated with internet use need to be treated sympathetically (and like other more bona fide problems such as alcoholism). Employee support services must also be educated about the potential problems of internet abuse in the workplace.

Internet abuse can clearly be a hidden activity and the growing availability of internet facilities in the workplace is making it easier for abuse to occur in lots of different forms. Thankfully, it would appear that for most people internet abuse is not a serious individual problem although for large companies, small levels of internet abuse multiplied across the workforce raises serious issues about work productivity. For those whose internet abuse starts to become more of a problem, it can affect many levels including the individual, their work colleagues, and the organization itself.

Managers clearly need to have their awareness of this issue raised, and once this has happened, they need to raise awareness of the issue among the work force. Furthermore, employers need to let employees know exactly which behaviours on the Internet are reasonable (e.g., the occasional e-mail to a friend) and those that are unacceptable (e.g., online gaming, cybersex etc.). Internet abuse has the potential to be a social issue, a health issue and an occupational issue and needs to be taken seriously by all those employers who utilize the Internet in their day-to-day business.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Internet gambling in the workplace. In M. Anandarajan & C. Simmers (Eds.). Managing Web Usage in the Workplace: A Social, Ethical and Legal Perspective (pp. 148-167). Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Occupational health issues concerning Internet use in the workplace. Work and Stress, 16, 283-287.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet abuse in the workplace – Issues and concerns for employers and employment counselors. Journal of Employment Counseling, 40, 87-96.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Internet abuse and addiction in the workplace – Issues and concerns for employers. In M. Anandarajan (Eds.). Personal Web Usage in the Workplace: A Guide to Effective Human Resource Management (pp. 230-245).Hershey, Pennsylvania: Idea Publishing.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet gambling in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 21, 658-670.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace. Journal of Worplace Learning, 7, 463-472.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The hidden addiction: Gambling in the workplace. Counselling at Work, 70, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & Demetrovics, Z. (2014). Social networking addiction: An overview of preliminary findings. In K. Rosenberg & L. Feder (Eds.), Behavioral Addictions: Criteria, Evidence and Treatment (pp.119-141). New York: Elsevier.

Kuss, D.J., Griffiths, M.D., Karila, L. & Billieux, J. (2014).  Internet addiction: A systematic review of epidemiological research for the last decade. Current Pharmaceutical Design, in press.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: Does it really exist? (Revisited). In J. Gackenbach (Ed.), Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Applications (2nd Edition), (pp.141-163). New York: Academic Press.

Young K. (1999). Internet addiction: Evaluation and treatment. Student British Medical Journal, 7, 351-352.

Hello, good buy: Another look at shopping addiction

With only a few shopping days left until Christmas, I thought I would take another (hopefully topical) look at shopping addiction. Earlier this year, the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs published a paper by Dr. Heidi Hartston on the case for shopping as an addiction. She argued that the main factors that contribute to shopping addictions are (i) a hyper-stimulating experience (or an experience that was hyper-stimulating during initial exposures); (ii) easy accessibility or a high likelihood of frequent engagement; and (iii) vulnerability to addiction, which can be genetically present or can be created by neuroadaptation or reward deficiency syndrome.

In the section of her paper on the creation of hyper-stimulating experiences, Hartston claimed that in 1903 when Coca-Cola removed the cocaine out of their product, their marketing research found increasingly sophisticated ways to act on the brain’s reward circuitry by utilizing (i) advertising, (ii) product experience and (iii) packaging. According to Harston:

“Neuromarketing is the use of scientific brain research to potentiate the effectiveness of product marketing. This research uses fMRI brain imaging, EEG, skin moisture levels, heart rate, breathing patterns, eye movement and pupil dilation among other scientific measures. Marketing firms have spent 6.8 billion dollars in research (leading to 117 billion in advertising) learning to maximize the influence that branding, packaging, product placement and ad content can have on shopper decisions to buy. Many neuromarketing studies bypass the conscious adult rational decision-making brain functions to maximize excitement, emotional attachment, brand attachment, reward pathway activation, medial prefrontal identification and oxytocin stimulation, influencing impulsive buying decisions in ways individuals are not aware of or informed about (Robischon 2010)”

She then went on to claim that huge multi-national companies like Disney, Google, Frito-Layand and CBS (as well as large election campaigns) use these neuromarketing techniques to examine reactions by consumers (and voters) to their brands (or candidates) and then alter their advertising strategies accordingly. To support these claims, Hartston notes:

“A few examples of scientifically informed marketing include incorporating the color red (think of the coke can) resulting in attributions of intelligence and power to owning a product or to sales people (Elliot & Aarts 2011). ‘Sneaker radio’, a muzak-like soundtrack designed for use in athletic shoe stores, is designed to slow a shopper’s pace through the store and increase impulsive purchases. Studies using fMRI scans can identify which ad strategies trigger the consumer to strongly desire a product, saying they are ‘itching to buy’ (Thompson 2003). Bypassing interaction with the cortex and maximizing stimulation of emotional and reward areas can create hyperstimulating and difficult to resist marketing and can sabotage a vulnerable shopper’s intentions and efforts to resist buying”.

Hartston also makes further interesting observations in how commercial companies can hyper-stimulate shopping by exaggerating the sense of importance to the buying of products, or to the process of shopping itself. Shopping is a behaviour that has the capacity to become a highly rewarding experience. Such rewards can include excitement, identity affirmation, accomplishment, and praise. For a minority, shopaholism may become a difficult behaviour to break. Such observations not only have implications for shopping purchases but also behaviours that I study in my own research such as gambling. In relation to shopping addiction and increased accessibility, Hartston noted that:

“Behaviors may not reach the intense level of [dopamine] hyperstimulation that drugs do when each separate exposure is compared. However, because addictive behaviors are more easily accessible and more frequently engaged in than drug use (more exposures per day or week), the net effect of many more frequent exposures can make an addictive behavior hyperstimulating enough to have similar behavioral and physiological consequences as drugs”.

Comparing two different drug addictions – nicotine addiction and heroin addiction – she notes that nicotine clearly has a much weaker reward stimulation (per exposure) but can be equally addictive as heroin. The key difference is obviously the frequency as smokers will continually smoke cigarettes throughout the day whereas the number of times a heroin addict will take heroin during the day will be considerably less. In essence, Hartston argued:

“More exposures means more pairings of use and mild hyperstimulation, more encoding of the positive associations with smoking in memory, more consistent hyperstimulation of DA reward areas and more ease in increasing use. Due to its ease of availability, someone who tries smoking is more likely to become addicted than someone who tries heroin (Hilts 2009)”.

Relating this to shopping, Hartston makes the point that shopping is no longer something that is time limited by closed shops. The internet has brought the potential for 24/7 shopping. As with other activities with the potential for addiction (e.g., gambling, video gaming, sex), the internet has brought easy access, high availability, convenience, anonymity, dishinibition, and escape. As Hartston rightly asserts:

“A shopper can browse or purposefully seek target items during many stolen moments each day, from almost any location, or for extended amounts of time whenever a break may occur. Impulses to buy can be acted on immediately, without the protective time delay there used to be. And the steps to completing a purchase have become shortened, with credit card numbers already saved and one-click purchasing options additionally catering to impulsivity”.

Finally, Hartston argues that brain changes associated with Reward Deficiency Syndrome make it harder to stop the behaviors like excessive shopping. There is growing evidence that both chemical and behavioural addictions not only trigger changes in dopamine reward physiology “but also to its cortical connections, thereby impairing self-regulation”. Any person is responsible for their own behaviour but Harston argues that changes to the brain’s physiology makes it harder for vulnerable and susceptible people to control such behaviours. As Harston points out:

“Actions ‘preferred’ (valued at higher importance) by hyperstimulated striatal neurons are more likely to occur despite the addict’s conscious insight (Lau & Glimcher 2008; Hikosaka et al. 2008; Hikosaka, Nakamura & Nakahara 2006). This means that when desires become addictions they can have an overriding command over behavior and decision making, which is difficult to interrupt even in the presence of insight or higher goals. Addicted brains also show less age-related expansion of white matter, reflecting a loss of learning capacity and difficulty making new choices, further inhibiting an addict’s control over impulsive reward seeking behaviors (Goldstein & Volkow 2002). People who find themselves in the trap of addiction, whether to a drug or a behavior like shopping, need to be able to access effective interventions and support in order to stop the problematic behavior and prevent relapses”

Shopping appears to be the latest normal everyday behaviour (along with behaviours like exercise, eating and sex) to have been pathologized. However, (as I noted in my previous blog on shopaholism), there does seem to be some empirical evidence that a small minority of people appear to display addictive-like symptoms as a result of their shopping behaviour. Dr. Harston has done a good job in pointing out of the biological and situational reasons for how and why such addictions may develop.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, U 

Further reading

Elliot, A. & Aarts, H. (2011). Perception of the color red enhances the force and velocity of motor output. Emotion, 11, 445–49.

Goldstein, R. & Volkow, N. (2002). Drug addiction and its underlying neurobiological basis: Neuroimaging evidence for the involvement of the frontal cortex. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159, 1642–52.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace. Journal of Worplace Learning, 7, 463-472.

Hartston, H. (2012). The case for compulsive shopping as an addiction. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 44, 64–67.

Hikosaka, O., Nakamura, K., & Nakahara, H. (2006). Basal ganglia orient eyes to reward. Journal of Neurophysiology, 95, 567–84.

Hikosaka, O., Bromberg-Martin, E., Hong, S. & Matsumoto, M. (2008). New insights on the subcortical representation of reward. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, April 18, 203–08.

Hilts, P. (1994). Is nicotine addictive? It depends on whose criteria you use. New York Times. August 2.

Lau, B. & Glimcher, P. (2008). Value representations in the primate striatum during matching behavior. Neuron, 58, 451–63.

Robischon, N. (2010.) Neuromarketing the 2010 elections: Scoring campaign ads. Fast Company. Nov 5. Available at http://www.fastcompany.com/1700207/campaign-ads-and-neuromarketing

Thompson, C. 2003. There’s a sucker born in every medial prefrontal cortex. New York Times Magazine. October 26, 54–65.

Widyanto, L. & Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Internet addiction: A critical review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 31-51.